Archaeologists in Champ-Durand, France, have found a cow skull with a small round hole cut into it
A stone age cow skull boasting a hole the size of a biscuit has been hailed as a first by archeologists, who say the gouge is the earliest evidence of either a veterinary attempt or animal experimentation.
Human skulls from around the world, some dating as far back as almost 10,000 years ago, have been found with very similar holes – evidence, say experts, of a cranial surgery called trepanation in which humans scraped away at the skull, or drilled it, to form an aperture.
But the cow skull, dating to at least 3,000 BC and found at the neolithic site of Champ-Durand in France, is the earliest example of such surgery on an animal.
“I have analysed many, many human skulls … all from the neolithic period and they all show the same techniques – and the technique you can observe in the cow’s skull [is] the same,” said Fernando Ramirez Rozzi, first author of the research from the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris.
While removing part of the skull is a technique sometimes used in modern medicine to control pressure following a head injury that causes bleeding in the brain or brain swelling, the purpose of its precursor, trepanning, has been hotly debated, with some suggesting it was used as some sort of medical intervention, and others that it was a part of rituals.
The cow skull is the earliest clear example of trepanation on an animal – while a wild boar skull with a hole, apparently made by cranial surgery, was reported in 1948, Ramirez Rozzi says it is not clear how old that skull is.
Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, Ramirez Rozzi and co-author Alain Froment say they dismissed previous conclusions that the hole in the cow’s skull, which at its largest measures about 6.4cm by about 4.7cm, was made in a violent tussle with another cow as there was no sign of fractures or bone splinters. There was also no sign that it was the result of an infectious disease or a tumour.
But careful examination showed the hole had the same sort of scrape marks as are seen in human skulls which have been trepanned.
The team also found there was no sign that the hole had begun to heal, suggesting that it was made either when the cow was on its on its deathbed, or had already died.
The researchers say it is unclear why the hole was made, but that there are two main theories: either stone age humans were honing their skills for making holes in the heads of their peers, making the latest find the earliest evidence of animal experimentation; or the hole is the earliest evidence of some sort of veterinary procedure and was carried out in an attempt to save the cow’s life.
In the latter case, the authors say, the intervention would likely have been a response to a behaviour change, possibly seizures, suggesting that neolithic humans had made the link between the brain and such problems.
However Ramirez Rozzi said the idea of a neolithic vet is the less likely of the two options: the cow was one of many and the animals were eaten for food. “I don’t see why they would save the one cow in the middle of hundreds of cows,” he said.